August 9, 2011

Dicks & Dragons

by Vadim Rizov

Your Highness

A decade ago, when David Gordon Green was racking up Terrence Malick comparisons for the mumbled voiceovers and magic-hour fields in his feature debut George Washington, it wasn't obvious that he'd eventually gravitate towards stoner comedies. A clue to his future direction came at the end of his 2003 sophomore film All the Real Girls, a schizoid emo romance that ends with romantic antihero Paul Schneider talking to his dog like an idiot. Clearly, goofy humor strained for release amid all the intense emotions and rapturous landscapes.

Fast-forward to 2008's Pineapple Express, named for a strain of marijuana but mostly dedicated to buzz-harshing sudden jolts of violence that disrupt the intended tribute to the worst (and most endearing) '80s action films. Pineapple is largely visually indifferent, a first for Green and regular cinematographer Tim Orr; appropriate for the retro vibe, but not an eye-pleasing aesthetic. Your Highness is more satisfying all around: the narrative is less stop-start, the pot jokes more inventive. Along with Green's upcoming The Sitter, it's the centerpiece in a loose trilogy that kicks around tropes of shoddy multiplex filler from yesteryear with nostalgic reverence. Recalling the slew of godawful '80s fantasy dreck like Red Sonja, Krull and other two-bit leftovers from the Robert E. Howard universe, the film features various exotic beasties, the vulgar highlight being a five-headed monster controlled by a warlock’s fingers. The heads are hacked off one by one in a gladiatorial pit, only leaving the middle “finger.” Dragons battle dicks for equal screen time—the single entendre dialogue is scrupulously penis-oriented. The MPAA has stringent rules about how phalluses may be depicted on-screen while retaining an R-rating. Suffice to say, a Minotaur’s member doesn’t push the limit.

Your Highness

Your Highness lets you know exactly what kind of movie you're watching about 15 minutes in, when brave prince Fabious (James Franco) and his decidedly less heroic brother Thadeous (Danny McBride) visit the Great Wise Wizard, a repugnant reptilian straight out of Jim Henson's nightmares. The Wizard offers a toke on his pipe to give them visions and wisdom, then asks to be jerked off. The gags are all like this: unabashedly juvenile on a grand fantasy scale, amping up the homoeroticism so that the sheer crudeness becomes the punch line. There's a quest to rescue a damsel in distress (Zooey Deschanel), a hot female warrior, an evil wizard, and all the other trappings; you could sketch the plot arc without seeing a single minute. But hey, dick jokes!

Socially serious-minded critics often like to point out that the male protagonists in Knocked Up, Superbad, et al. exhibit much stronger camaraderie with each other than with any women drifting in, who often seem to be occupying an entirely different planet. As subtext goes, it's right there on the surface, but not incisive enough to be more than a one-note thesis. Green (who worked with Apatow on Pineapple Express) responds with a relentless blitz of gags on the topic, and hardly a minute goes by without a cock appearing somewhere, or someone offering to "suck" poison out, or Franco and McBride acting like a peevish couple. At the climax (snicker!), the bros high-five and congratulate each other on feats of swordsmanship, exasperating their fierce warrior companion Isabel (Natalie Portman), who invites the two "ladies" to help her kill all the baddies whenever they're done making out.

Your Highness

Green stages the big fight scenes coherently and excitingly, proving surprising acumen as an action film technician. One stagecoach chase alone is logistically tighter than a romp this ridiculous deserves. The film was shot in Scotland, and Orr has the helicopter shots to prove it. Against this cleanly filmed landscape (and effectively creepy monsters), Green and his game cast make a travesty of every fantasy cliché they can brainstorm. What stops it all from being too offensive or exhausting in its relentless juvenility is its good-humored vibe: like John Landis' enthusiastically crude comedies (The Blues Brothers, Animal House), Your Highness values amiability over cohesion.

Your Highness

Green's hardly the only contemporary indie mainstay to replicate and fetishize a formerly disreputable genre with the same artful attention Todd Haynes devoted to copying 8 ½ in I'm Not There; a couple years ago, Ti West perfectly recaptured the retro slasher with The House of the Devil. But West's reimagining was richer than the films it impersonated, and Your Highness is definitely better than, say, The Beastmaster, even when playing straight. '80s nostalgia has been permeating music in recent years, with electronic drum pads and vocoders returning with a vengeance, only applied correctly: rather than slathering artificially booming drums and tinny synthesizers over everything, musicians have figured out how to use specific sounds strategically rather than indiscriminately. Your Highness pulls the same trick by putting standard devices to work with a degree of craft its sources never pulled off. It’s the best possible phallus-oriented, swords-and-sorcery rescue quest movie on record, and to sell that as mainstream fare takes, well, balls.

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Posted by ahillis at August 9, 2011 8:38 AM